Let us say that a hospital were to institute incentive-based accountability for doctors as follows: 1) improvement in patient health is to be measured strictly by the numbers; 2) these numbers are to consist exclusively of fever measurements; 3) the more patients improve on fever charts, the more the doctors get paid; 4) whenever patients do not improve by a certain quota of temperature degrees, the doctors are fired to be replaced by newer, younger, more compliant and therefore “better” doctors.
What would happen under this system ? First, doctors would find ways of lowering temperatures (alcohol rubs, etc.) without improving underlying conditions. But even if temperature figures were not to get gamed in this way, any improvement in fever scores could not reasonably be interpreted as improvement in the overall health of the patients.
Well, let us hope that no such “accountability” scheme will ever be used in a public health setting. But in education ? As Diane Ravitch points out in her brilliant new book “The Death and Life of the Great American School System,” it is exactly such misleading “accountability” that has taken over our education system.
First, standardized tests (which, like the fever thermometer, certainly have a place if intelligently used) are systematically gamed by teachers and administrators to get desired results. Even where used without deceptive intent, they cannot possibly tell us about the total quality of instruction.
Second, the extraordinary growth of charter schools has weakened the public education system. And nobody has shown that charter school results are superior to public education.
Third, gimmickry has taken over some of our largest school systems. Michelle Rhee, the young new chancellor of schools of the District of Columbia, symbolizes the new belief in quick fixes. With all of three years teaching experience of her own, she has formulated her educational philosophy as follows: a pupil’s home background is irrelevant to education; neither poverty nor health nor parental input play any role; nor does a teacher’s own background or education. Some teachers are just more effective, she holds, and it is these teachers she wishes to promote. All the others she fires, or tries to fire. Obama (who sends his own children to a very expensive private school) is among Ms. Rhee’s many fans. Has her system worked, even in terms of higher test marks ? Not yet, as far as anyone can tell.
But the biggest bombshell of the book is its penultimate chapter, The Billionaire Boys’ Club. Guess who is primarily responsible for pushing these pernicious ideas and for financing their adoption ? Among the three prime villains there is one I had up to now thought of as among the angels: Bill Gates of Microsoft, or rather Bill Gates of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Neither he, nor his associates of the Walton and Broad foundations, practice any of the precious accountability that they demand of others. Here are the ultra of the ultra rich, dispensing billions with profligate abandon, dominating educational practice through ill-advised projects, but with nary a side glance at the deeper issues involved in educating our children.
On these broader issues of educational philosophy, Ravitch has all the right instincts (see her last chapter), but she lacks depth. John Dewey, one of the towering figures of American educational thought, is not found in the index. And when it comes to multiple-choice tests — the be-all and end-all of the new fixers — Ravitch only skims the surface of necessary criticism.
OK, she hasn’t quite written the book I would have liked her to write. But what she has done is giving us a tremendous wealth of detail on what goes on, and especially on what does not go on, in America’s schools. For that she deserves our gratitude.